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Belle and Sebastian are good and all, but I would’ve probably rather watched the dogs run around onstage for an hour and a half
Belle and Sebastian + New Pornographers
March 2, 2006
I was not in the mood to go see Belle and Sebastian last night. If you’ve been on the Voice website in the last couple of days, you can probably figure out why, but I was really not trying to hear any dizzily chirpy, self-consciously cute childlike Broadway-esque cardigan indie-pop, no matter how much I loved the band’s first three albums. If the Polyphonic Spree had been anywhere near me, I probably would’ve punched all of them in the neck. The Life Pursuit, the new Belle and Sebastian album, is their best in at least six years; they’ve reconnected with the swoony melodic grace that made them great in the first place. But the album also finds them moving further away from mopey-depressive woe-is-me fare and further toward heavily orchestrated razzle-dazzle starry-eyed Austin Powers joy-explosions, and that wasn’t what I needed to hear last night. I wasn’t expecting to, but I actually prefer Ballad of Broken Seas, the new album from Mark Lanegan and former B&S singer Isobel Cambell: spare arrangements, no overbearing flugelhorn solos, a general acknowledgment that bad things exist in the world beyond, like, mean bullies. But I’d agreed to cover the B&S show, and I had free tickets, so I went. For me at least, the real test for Belle and Sebastian was whether they could break through my initial resistance and actually make me happy to hear them.
Before the band actually stepped onstage, things weren’t looking good. The Nokia Theatre has clear sightlines and pretty lights and a remarkably clear sound system, but it also has $7 beers and a weirdly antiseptic air, the sort of place you could imagine finding at Universal Studios with, like, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy onstage, and the fucked-up guy who kept asking me for weed (“You can’t hit me with some boogie-down, bro?”) wasn’t helping anything. Neither were the New Pornographers. They’d impressed me at their Bowery Ballroom CMJ set, but here, they came off dull and listless. The stuff that sounded huge and anthemic at CMJ (the “hey la hey la” part of “The Bleeding Heart Show”) sounded flat here. The band played as an essentials-only six-piece, tight and springy, unfortunately no Neko Case but fortunately no Dan Bejar. But their was no fire in their delivery; it was all cold technique, no comfort to be found anywhere.
Worse, the New Pornos ended their set by turning the stage over to five chumps who called themselves Matter of Trust and played an endless song apparently called “Matter of Trust” that I guess is a Billy Joel cover or something. They kept talking about how they met the other bands at a festival in Switzerland or some shit. People were laughing, so I guess it was a joke, but I didn’t get it, and I probably wouldn’t have thought it was funny even if I had. Stuff like this irritates me to no end: faux-showmanship, everyone laughing because they don’t want to look like they aren’t in on the joke, a sort of widespread aren’t-we-urbane delusion that you only find at indie-rock shows. It was not cute, and it did not help my mood.
So after all this bullshit, it’s almost amazing that Belle and Sebastian managed to come out and play a truly enjoyable show, twee and precious but also warm and professional, nailing all the big swirling crescendos and tender quiet moments, rarely coming off like douchebags. Other than the new material, the set was basically the same as the one the band played at last year’s Across the Narrows festival, all the same old songs in roughly the same order with the same fey banter in between. But the band was leaner and sharper, relying more heavily on synths and laptops than on unnecessary string-sections, Stuart Murdoch fucking up his cues less often. There’s been some speculation that they must’ve used session musicians for some of the Cali-rock flourishes on The Life Pursuit, but no; the band pulled off all the blues-guitar half-solos and strutting bass-riffs without breaking a sweat. They opened with “Stars of Track and Field,” one of their most perfect pieces of staring-through-rainy-windows melancholy and the first song of theirs that many of us had ever heard, before slowly easing into the new material, not leaning too hard on the gentle chug of “Another Sunny Day.” Whenever the happied-up new stuff started to wear thin, they’d go back to their sad old songs. And the new songs were occasionally revelatory; “White Collar Boy,” a too-gleeful bit of clappy power-pop, was a helium banger onstage, hooks piling up gloriously. And “Your Cover’s Blown” was a tense and wiry disco burn, climaxing when Murdoch attempted the lamest, most half-assed stage-dive I’d ever seen (he basically sat on the crowd). Things skeezed up a bit near the end when Murdoch invited as many girls in skirts as he could find in the crowd to come onstage and do some hastily choreographed Rockette kicks, a total Calvin Johnson move, but he followed it up with two If You’re Feeling Sinister tracks as encores, so all was forgiven. Even this late in the game, after they’ve shed their church-mouse mystique and become seasoned indie-careerists, Belle and Sebastian have an almost transcendent good nature; they’re utterly gorgeous more often than they have any right to be. I think I even smiled a couple of times.